Friday, August 12, 2011

What's Going On?

For the best part of two weeks I have been in the North of England. The same North which, with the dishonourable exception of Manchester, has not been hit by the deeply depressing 'riots' which have scarred many other towns and cities. Worst hit is my adopted home of London. It has been a disturbing feeling, sat a few hundred miles away, to see such havoc and destruction wreaked on places I know so well. Like hearing of an old, loved friend destroying themselves with liquor or drugs.

Because that has been the most disquieting aspect of the past week. The sheer nihilism involved. People so disconnected from their own communities and neighbours that they would destroy their houses and livelihoods and sully the streets in which they live. And for what? Some great injustice, or powerful cause? No. To get hold of a flatscreen television or some other commodity they have coveted but can't afford. Or simply the sheer wanton thrill of destruction. The only connecting belief was opportunism. A chance to cause trouble, to lash out. There was no grand plan or grand statement here.

Why? People have asked. And boy, have they asked it. Those on the right think the rioters are creations of the liberal welfare state, which has created a dependent underclass unwilling to work, who live off benefits and have grown up in broken families with a broken sense of morality (encouraged by liberal thinking and permissiveness naturally). Meanwhile, the left think we are reaping what we have sown during three decades of naked consumerism, which has sprouted a seething, envious underclass who have no chance or opportunity to partake in the orgy of wealth created for the fortunate few. These are Blair's Children, say the right. No, they are Thatcher's grandchildren, say the left. The right claim that trying to explain such pure criminality in some way excuses it. Bring back the birch and National Service. The left wonder how, if you don't try to understand what created such nihilism, you can tackle it and prevent it happening again. Arm the police, say some on the right, and give the rioters a taste of some proper medicine. It was armed police that caused the whole problem in the first place say some on the left (the riots kicked off last Thursday after the shooting of a man in Tottenham by police.)

The arguments have been as depressing as the riots. And, in the rush to excuse or blame, a few things have been forgotten. Not least that when it comes to preaching about 'proper' and 'moral behaviour' our leaders and our establishment have no right whatsoever to talk. Maybe, just maybe, the underclass created by three decades of naked, rapacious capitalism (I'm in the Thatcher's grandchildren camp when push comes to shove. The mad old bat once said there was no such thing as society. What could have proved her point so adroitly as a gang of designer goods thieving youths smashing up their own societies, or what's left of them?) have looked at their rulers and the society in which they live and thought, 'Balls to this.' Not in any coherent, planned way. But given the opportunity and means to raise hell, they looked around, saw a society in which no one takes any responsibility anymore, and thought, 'Why shouldn't I?'

To start from the top. Our own Prime Minister, Eton-educated, of rich, landed stock, who only today had the cheek and nerve to talk about the rioters and their sense of entitlement. A man who is only in the position he is, not because of any talent or acumen, but because of what he was born into and the privileges it has granted him. A man who, along with clownish and wretched Mayor of London Boris Johnson, was a member of an elite society of rich students at Oxford called the Bullingdon Club whose idea of weekly entertainment was to to go to a restaurant and bar, hire a private dining room, proceed to get as pissed as rats and then smash the whole place up. The only difference from the rioters being that the next morning they had the means to write the poor, bewildered restaurant owners a cheque to pay for the damage.

Then we have MPs, who today stood up in their scores in Parliament to denounce the rioters for their greed and avarice, for wanting something for nothing. The same MPs who only a a few years ago were caught en masse systematically fiddling their own expenses. Take Michael Gove, the emollient education secretary who was on TV the other night in apoplexy about the rioters and their greed, who helped himself to £7000 of taxpayers money to which he wasn't entitled. Or Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP, who got an £8000, wait for it, flatscreen TV paid for by the taxpayer. These are just two random choices. There were many more sordid examples: MPs, and their sense of entitlement, helping themselves to cash and goods at the expense of the people who elected them, and had been doing it for years.

But what about the journalists and newspapers fulminating about these lazy, indolent, feckless scum that have smashed up our towns and cities? They're on the side of the angels, aren't they? Well, regular readers of my contributions here know what journalists have shown to be up to for the best part of the last ten years or more. Lazy, indolent, feckless scum that think nothing of deleting messages from a missing girl's phone, illegally obtaining all manner of records for their sordid little scoops, or hiring private detectives to do their dirty work, sneaking around in celebrities' bins rather than getting out there and doing their job properly.

But at least we have the police,, no. The phone hacking scandal has sown the police, or at least some of its leading figures, to be as corrupt and bent as the old days of the Dirty Squad, if not worse. More eager to go out for lunch with a journalist and get some good PR for their force, and turn a blind eye to their snooping on the very people they are paid to serve and protect, than being out there catching the bad guys.

Then there's the City, the bankers and financiers and traders. The same incompetent fools who ransacked the global economy and landed us in the dire straits we're in, most of whom have kept their comfy, well-remunerated jobs while thousands have had their lives and futures blighted because of the money hurled into a black hole and given back to the bankers to try and dig us out of the very mess they put us in. And seem determined to land us in again. The US political tribes come to an agreement on the debt ceiling, no matter how flawed. They are elected and therefore accountable. They can be voted out. But what happens? The unelected fraudsters, shysters and charlatans that comprise Wall Street decided it's not for them, thanks, and they'll carry on looting and ransacking national economies if you don't mind. The shops that were trashed and smashed by the UK rioters can be rebuilt and restocked quickly. National economies take rather longer, and the consequences far worse. Yet we do nothing to regulate this absurd and unjust and undemocratic system.

This week I have read about rioters wanting rights without responsibility; having no discipline or moral sense; and believing that that the world owes them a living. All of these can be applied easily to our politicians, our journalists, our bankers and our policemen. I have read about pockets of  that are sick and broken, and thought 'Yes, our political, press, judicial and financial 'pockets'. Bloody deep pockets they are too.

When such an appalling example is set. When those in power, and those tasked with being a check on that power, behave like they're on all the make, above the law, grabbing all that they can whenever they can and to hell with the consequences, is it any surprise that an underclass, in a society of spectacular, ingrained inequality, in society besieged with scandal and corruption, facing impending financial Armageddon, jumped into such a void and behaved as they did? That doesn't seek to excuse it. There is no excuse for it. But it might explain why so many of them sought to join in the anarchy. After all, everyone else is, why shouldn't they?

Except, everyone else isn't. The rioters, like the bent journalists, the dodgy coppers, the crooked politicians and the immoral traders and dealers, are relatively few in number, far outweighed by the decent and law-abiding. The same people who are donating cash for those who lost their livelihoods; who came out on the streets with brooms to tidy up the mess; who stood and and defended their houses and shops from the thugs; who, in the North, supped on their pints, shook their heads and muttered about the 'damn stupid buggers down south' that created this mess. Those are the people who have stopped this week being a complete loss. I hope there's many of them and they're willing to get us out of this mess and forge a new kind of deal, culture and society that leaves the old discredited ways, and old discredited politicians, journos and bankers, behind.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan, this is splendid! What you say AND how you say it. Thank you for so cogently and passionately pointing out that it's the lawless privileged pot calling the lawless hopeless kettle black.

  2. The names have been changed to reflect which side of the pond is being discussed but there is nothing in this post that can't be applied to the mess in the US.

    Mitt Romney is the current front runner for the Republican nomination in 2012. He was a one term governor in Massachusetts who was elected on the basis of his successful management of Bain Capital, a company that made him even richer than he already was. Bain made its reputation on rescuing failing companies. The means by which they were rescued was the same in every case - elininate jobs. If Bain is in your future, so is the breadline.

    At an outdoor speech, Romney was heckled by some liberals who accused him of having no interest in the welfare of the people. Romney's rejoinder: "Corporations are people, too." Apparently there are no working class Republicans.

    You may have come across some of Romney's relatives when you were researching your seconfd book.

    I think this side of the pond has your side beat in pure selfishness. No one wants to pay taxes but we do have some responsibility toward our fellow citizens.

  3. Brilliantly written, Dan, and I especially admire the fact that you didn't go for easy answers.

    In the US, too, our politicians -- of both parties -- are object lessons in mendacity and cowardice, quick to make broad, noble-sounding and meaningless pronouncements while expert at ducking any responsibility for the incredibly rotten state of things.

    The two extremes (and there are fewer and fewer people, it seems, in the middle) say either "crack down and crack heads" or "increase the dole." Others on the right (in England) point to "uncontrolled immigration" as a cause.

    It may be true than a large unassimilated immigrant population played a role in the rioting. It's certainly true that people who failed to benefit from the public education system played a role in the rioting. The "have nots" on both sides of the Atlantic are largely the uneducated, who lack the skills to aspire to jobs that can be seen as rewarding.

    What to do? I have no idea, but I suspect it needs to be a long-range plan and that it will rely heavily on improving education, enlarging the dole to some degree, and, yes, cracking a few heads. The problem is the term "long-range" when our leaders are elected for being eloquent in service of the cause of the moment.

  4. You've forgot to mention the lack of leadership from the Church and its cover-up of child sex abuse. The list continues.

  5. I liked your passion and your willingness to say something that has been missing. Rioting may not be the answer, but how do the people get anyone to listen. Every poll, every economist in the U.S. says we should have a combination of revenue increases and cutbacks. On thousand dollars for a millionaire would do little to change his/her lifestyle, but a hundred dollars to some one on social security is a blow. But who is listening? That's my two cents for the day.

  6. A comment on Lee's comment -

    The child sex-abuse scandal destroyed members of a few generations but the young people rioting in Britain and the lost generation in the US are, for the most part, too young to have been caught up in that problem.

    I was a teacher and so I am part of the group that generally gets blamed for everything be it low test scores, bullying, and abysmal social skills. Everyone is afraid to put responsibility where it belongs, on the parents.

    Kids fail to benefit from education because they don't go to school. I doubt that there is any city that doesn't have a trade school that allows students to fulfill the requirements for graduation while doing an apprenticeship in any number of trades.

    Children need food, housing,clothes for the season, and medical and dental care. Any government that plays games with these services is playing with the future of the country. Kids are entitled to these things if a country wants to invest in the next generation of nurses, doctors, teachers, electricians, bus drivers, fire fighters and every other job upon which society depends.

    It may require that the wealthy pay more in taxes but aren't they lucky that they earn enough to be taxed?

  7. Damn, just lost a detailed response to all your comments. Thanks for them though.

    Annamaria, the moral decay is as bad at the top *of society as it is at the bottom (*I prefer to see us all as one sick sordid morass.)

    Beth, Romney is a corporate whore for sure. Like most Republican politicians. Out to make his rich friends richer. Unfortunately, it is this kind of attitude that trickles down, rather than the wealth itself. As for who's most selfish, I don't know. The Government's 'austerity cuts' haven't even bitten yet. Sadly the worst might still be to come. But nothing will be learned. The water cannons will be deployed to please the 'hang em, flog em' brigade and expressing any concern will mark you as a wet, liberal do-gooder and seen as a vote loser, so no one will try and tackle the real problem, or admit the part they might have played.

    Tim, the answer does indeed lie in education. probably some regulation too, to tether the banks, the hacks, as well as the tearaways.

    The uncontrolled immigration canard hasn't been trotted out. Yet. That's because the rioters were palpably young Britons. While the immigrant communities, the Turks, Sikhs and Pakistanis, were out on the streets defending their houses and shops and businesses. As one wag quipped, subverting an old moan of the extreme right about stealing jobs, 'Bloody immigrant, coming over here, defending our communities, protecting our livelihoods.'

    Lee, it goes to show how little role the church play in British life that I didn't even consider its role. It doesn't have one anymore. And even an avowed atheist like me has to agree something has been lost, at least in terms of another glue that bound communities together.

    And Beth again you're right about what kids need. They also need hope, the promise of a future. Something many kids in many parts of our society simply don't have and won't have unless something is done.

  8. Dan,

    Reading your piece made me angry. It's a sign of the times I fear, not my anger but the lack of all but knee-jerks (in every sense of the word) in charge of ruling life on our planet today.

    Do they not remember the riots in the 60's in the US when cities burned? I do, I remember my uncle racing into the grocery store his family had run for forty years in Pittsburgh's Hill district (of August Wilson fame), to try and rescue it from the flames. Only the neighbors who'd grown up knowing and loving him saved him from himself by personally escorting him through the looters.

    But revenge isn't the answer. Never is. And if any place should realize that it's the UK, where creating martyrs to a cause has at times seemed a cottage industry there.

    I spent a year researching issues surrounding EU illegal immigration (for a book I finished that will never be published by reason of being scooped by actual world events), and one thing is perfectly clear to me: No western European country can ever discourage "elsewhere's" poor and desperate from coming in in unless it is prepared to use the same brutal tactics as those who rule the lands which they flee.

    The irrational decision for the immigrant would be NOT to run from mass rape, war and starvation to a place where all there is to fear is water canons and words.

    The damage done by the aforementioned knee-jerk tactics is not to the immigrant, but to those who believe revenge rather than mature thinking will pull them through what undoubtedly will prove to be Western Europe's (among others) single greatest long term challenge--how to deal with immigration.

    At least that's how I look at it. Thanks, Dan, for making we think so early in the morning and I wish you could make it to Bouchercon for "The Magnificent Seven redux."


  9. Whether UK, Greece or more and more the U.S., young people increasingly don't have hope or see a future.

    Many can't get an education due to cutbacks, fewer loans, and higher tuition, pricing many out. Public schools are fewer and conditions are worsening -- and I, for one, do not blame the teachers at all. Funding is being cut, class sizes are growing, buildings are being shut, vital programs are shut down.

    Over here unemployment is high, there aren't enough jobs, with 25-30 million unemployed or involuntarily underemployed. Many have given up. It's much worse for youth; the statistics are horrendous.

    If young people can't get educations and then jobs, where is the hope? If medical care is cut, people are losing housing, unemployment insurance is ended, where are people to go?

    Governments really should provide health care and education.

    Over here, the super-rich just got what they wanted: massive cuts in social programs, and no tax increases. They want to push cuts in Social Security and Medicare, which are not entitlements: People pay taxes on these programs, and deserve to get them. Medicaid is for poor people, and with the recession and unemployment, more people are poor. (More are on food stamps than ever, nearly 46 million.)

    And the bankers, ala S&P's messages are demanding more essential programs cut.

    And the government here is not doing anything about a jobs program, although without that, things are deteriorating for millions of people.

    What is to be done? People need jobs, education, health care and housing. Young people need hope and futures.

    Otherwise, there is anger and demoralization, even nihilism, and the absolute waste of millions of human lives.

  10. This is the first blog I've ever read where intelligence, sensitivity, disgust, etc., are so well shared. Isn't it a pit that the 21st century--so fresh and promising but 10-ish years ago--reads like the Middle Ages and all that went with it. It's not just the rich who are so far above all others, but the right-wing, well-settled may be even worse. The rich can, at least, be good sharers personally. The other mentioned group tends to snarl at all levels, distributers of false, stupid viral e-mails. I have what I need, but not much else. But I do have social-justice middle income housing, Medicare and reduced-fare. With that level of comfort, I can open my heart and mind--my wallet when possible...and endure the snarls of the well-set upper middle class associates.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.